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A First-Timer’s Guide to Sundance

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From scoring tickets to celeb spotting, our local expert shares the best ways to enjoy the film world’s premier indie festival

By David Proffitt

Illustration by Sean McCabe
Illustration by Sean McCabe
I hear about film festivals all the time. How is Sundance different?

Sundance, which runs Jan. 19–29, is the standard-bearer of American independent cinema. It’s fresher and more surprising than Cannes, more laid-back than Toronto and more focused on films than SXSW. You see movies here months — or even years — ahead of their national release dates.

What kind of movies can I expect to see?

In previous years, Napoleon Dynamite, Hoop Dreams, Precious, Donnie Darko, Memento, The Blair Witch Project and Little Miss Sunshine all became breakout hits. The festival also launched the careers of directors Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape), the Coen brothers (Blood Simple), Ed Burns (The Brothers McMullen) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs).

Where is it?

Most of the action is in the mountain ski town of Park City, Utah, but you can also catch films and events in Salt Lake City, Ogden and Robert Redford’s very own Sundance Mountain Resort near Provo.

Where are the best places to see a celebrity?

High West Distillery & Saloon, Flanagan’s on Main and O.P. Rockwell are popular party spots, but the hottest Hollywood watering holes are the private houses that dot the mountainsides around Park City. Unfortunately for the average fan, it’s impossible to get into these parties without an invitation or a very big producer credit. Instead, scope out Park City’s Egyptian Theatre or Eccles Center before and after the premieres. Or just occupy a spot on one of the balconies overlooking Main Street. (Utah’s low-alcohol draft beer laws mean you can keep ordering for hours without falling off your stool.)

When should I go?

The festival’s first weekend is prime time for industry deals, premieres and celebrities. But after Tuesday, restaurants, bars and even screenings are easier to get into. You can also get tickets to see the festival prizewinners during the final weekend.

What’s the biggest rookie mistake?

Doing too much. Getting around Park City means shuttle buses, which can be slow. Stick with theaters that are near each other. Prospector and Eccles make a good pair, or go for a troika with the Library, Egyptian and Yarrow theaters.

I can only watch so many movies. What else is there to do?

Hit the slopes! The Wasatch Mountains are home to more than a half-dozen world-class resorts, including Park City, now the largest ski resort in the country. As a bonus, lift lines are a breeze during the festival.

How and where do I get tickets?

The big premieres fill up fast, so buy passes or tickets as early as possible. To get on the shortlist, buy a ticket for the next day’s first screening at the Eccles Center. It’s the biggest venue in Park City and usually shows the biggest movies. You can also buy waitlist tickets to sold-out screenings. Reserve a spot using the Sundance app or website, then show up at the theater 30 minutes beforehand.

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